Fiat’s 500C the Makings of an Apple iCar

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Back in 2007, the Mac web rumor mill was abuzz for a while about a reported September meeting in California between Steve Jobs and Volkswagen CEO Winterkorn over possibly integrating the iPod, iPhone, and other Apple products into an automobile — with blogosphere speculation about possibly even an Apple/VW joint venture “iCar” project.

However, by late November, the German site Capital was reporting (Google translation) that Apple/VW discussions, although confirmed by Volkswagen, had ground to a halt.

Steve Jobs as Auto Exec.?

Fast-forward two years. It’s an understatement to say that the automobile industry has been turned on its head by the global recession. Apple, however, is doing considerably better, which has led to speculation as to what Steve Jobs would do were he running an auto-making firm — say beleaguered General Motors. Last fall the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman mused, “Somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.”

Fiat Chrysler a More Logical iCar Partner

Steve Jobs of course has had other challenges to contend with over the past year, but the ideal of an Apple iCar still tantalizes some of us crossover auto-buff Mac and gadget fans. I think a rather more promising candidate for an Apple automotive venture joint partner would be Chrysler, rather than GM or VW.

Why? Well for one thing, Chrysler is now controlled by Italy’s Fiat S.p.A., currently in the hunt to re-enter the U.S. automobile market after a nearly two-decade absence, building the brand from the ground up, as it were, and the CEO of both companies, Sergio Marchionne, is reportedly a big fan of the Apple business model.

Last June, TIME magazine noted that, “Since he took over as chief executive of Italy’s Fiat in 2004, the chain-smoking Canadian-Italian has used Apple as a model, focusing on the way Steve Jobs transformed it from an also-ran computer company into a global icon of cool. He encourages Fiat managers to take a close look at Apple’s branding prowess and even asks them to benchmark their activities against the company.”

The TIME piece also cited Carlo Alberto Carnevale, professor of strategic management at Milan’s Bocconi University’s business school, observing, “The challenge for Fiat Chrysler is to move away from popular products and into ‘pop’ products, full of cool environmental technology and on the right side of history. In that sense, it’s the same bet as Steve Jobs’. That’s why Marchionne uses that metaphor.”

Why Not an iCar Version Too?

But what if it became more than a metaphor? I say this because the iconic Fiat 500C (“Cinquecento”), which has been a rip-roaring sales hit in Europe and elsewhere (currently sold in 59 markets), is expected to anchor the brand’s re-entry into the North American car market, with Road & Track magazine reporting that at least four Fiat 500 versions will be gracing showrooms here for the 2011 model year, including hatchback, convertible, wagon, and sporty-hatch versions. Why not a fifth, “iCar” version?

The Fiat 500 seems to me an ideal base for an iCar treatment. Unveiled at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show, the new Fiat 500C version is like the VW New Beetle, the BMW Mini, and arguably even the Ford Mustang, a retro-interpretation of an automotive icon from the ’50s or ’60s, in this instance the original 1957 fabric roof Fiat 500, but with thoroughly modern mechanicals and engineering under the classic-appearing skin. Fiat notes that the new Cinquecento was developed by the Centro Stile Fiat design center using an IT industry-esque “open-source approach,” continually evolving on the basis of input from users and enthusiasts.

Environmentally Friendly and Uber-Cool

The Fiat 500, available with a variety of what the company says are “environmentally friendly engines,” has reconfirmed its status as an Italian style icon, winning more than 30 awards, and with upwards of 11 million internet users visiting its website. Fiat affirms that is sees the Cinquecento to be a “platform upon which Fiat Automobiles is building a whole family of cars with advanced technology and high attention to detail.” It’s not at all an extravagant stretch to imagine that an iCar version of the Fiat 500C could quite harmoniously be included in that vision.

A Cinquecento-based, Apple co-branded iCar would have both the timely characteristics of small size and light environmental footprint, which, combined with the uber-cool Apple “i-factor” that could at least conceivably make it the iPhone/iPod/iMac of the automobile world. Perhaps I’m wildly fantasizing, but it sounds like a workable plan to me.

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